There are books that are challenging to read. I often fail. I’m not talking about impenetrable, long, arcane books (say James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom!). I am referring to the fear of my reactions, my reluctance to explore difficult situations, often involving violence, and violence against women in particular. So difficult subject matter then.
Here are two books I thought I would never start to read, let alone finish.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan.
This was the book selected by the reading group I had just joined. So I had to read it. I had always thought that the theme would be too difficult for me. A toddler goes missing at a supermarket. She’s gone. A nightmare for the parents. What happened to the child? How could I read a book that raised that terror for me? And that is McEwan’s genius, to take an aspect of middle-class life and subvert it, utterly. I enjoyed the book group.
We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
‘Have you read it?’ my friends would ask. ‘It’s about-‘ I knew what it was about. How could I read about those high school massacres? Why would I want to follow members of the school community who randomly kill their schoolmates? It was bad enough to read about them in the papers, but to explore such an incident seemed perverse. But after some years I did.
I found Kevin to be something of a tour de force. The questions raised by a hard-to-love child, about parenting, even when your child has committed the most heinous of crimes. Shriver tackled these bleak themes with creativity and insight and, as in the best fiction, it changed my understanding.
Here’s a book I never thought I would finish, but I did.
Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm
I started this novella and laid it aside as too excoriating and then began it again later. It was included in my subscription to Peirene Press. A book from them is always a treasure, even a hard to read treasure. The story follows a woman who was both Polish and Jewish searching for her husband in the Second World War. I was horrified by the erosion of moral behaviour, of impossible dilemmas, all in the pursuit of love. The accumulation of atrociousness is told in a rather bland, flat style – one thing after another – which made it possible to finish it and to ponder the mystery of what humans do to each other.
Here’s a book I started but don’t imagine I will ever finish.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Another war, more horror, more violence, more unspeakable atrocities. At least that is what I think I am avoiding. I enjoyed the first half, about Nigeria before the Biafran War. But I’ll leave it there, thank you.
Here’s another book I have started and I’m not sure I will finish.
These are the diaries of a journalist in Berlin as it falls to the advancing Red Army towards the end of the Second World War in Europe. Will I be able to read the first-hand account of what the soldiers did to the women?
Here’s a book my friend says, ‘I’m still not reading’.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.
Well then, I’m not reading it either!
You can find a list of the top ten most difficult books on a Guardian blog by Alison Flood: The world’s most difficult books: how many have you read? My answer is one!
The same list is described in more detail on the Publishers Weekly website.
Am I a wuss for avoiding and recoiling from the narration (fictional and factual) of humankind’s appalling behaviour, especially in wartimes? I don’t know. What do you think? Are there any books you can’t read?
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